Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.
Paulette just moved from one state to another for her new job, with all of her belongings packed up in her car. As part of getting settled in her new state, she goes to register her car at the local motor vehicle office. 'First, you'll need a mechanical safety inspection and an emissions test,' the attendant tells her. Paulette is surprised because her home state doesn't require either. She's wondering how the requirements to register a vehicle are so different within the United States, which is one country. This lesson explains why a federal system of government allows for these differences, and how confederal and unitary styles of government might handle these situations differently.
If Paulette lived in a country with a unitary system of government, registering her car would likely be the same anywhere that she moved because laws are typically determined at the national level, and most power is held at the national level. In a unitary system, registering her vehicle would probably not vary much from region to region. Most, if not all, laws would be created by a centralized government. Then regions may become responsible to enforce those laws. It can help to remember the term unitary by thinking of how the word is related to unity or uniting into one common set of guidelines. One benefit of the unitary system is the consistency and efficiency that is created by this approach.
Living in a new state, Paulette will likely find out over time that there are more differences than just the motor vehicle guidelines. The tax rate may be different in her new home, marriage and divorce laws will vary, and the punishment for crimes won't be uniform. Even a big issue, like whether a person can be put to death for their crime, may change when moving from state to state.
In a federal form of government, like the United States, laws are determined at both the state and national level. In federal governments, power is held by states and by federal-level government. In other countries, states may be called by different names like provinces, territories, regions, or cantons.
One benefit of the federal system of government is that the national level of government can play a role in uniting the whole country, yet leaves room for the kind of variations that allow regions to decide what is best for themselves when that's appropriate. Some rules can apply across the board, while others can be determined by each state. For example, a nation may have a law that every driver must be licensed to operate a vehicle. However, the age at which a person can apply for a driver's license is not always the same from state to state. Guidelines for how Paulette registers her vehicle, and whether she needs it inspected, could also vary depending on where she lives.
And what about the other system of government, a confederal approach? In nations that are considered confederations, laws are determined mainly at the state level and power is held at the state level. You might remember from history lessons that the Articles of Confederation were in place before the Constitution was established in the United States. Colonists had lived as part of the British monarchy and its unitary approach to power. Many were fearful of too much power concentrated at the national level. A confederation in which the states kept most of the control was a fitting way for a country fearing centralized power to get its start.
Yet there were downsides to this approach as well, and soon a stronger national government emerged. The Constitution helped to maintain certain rights of the states, while giving the federal government powers of its own. Colonists living during this era went from living in a British unitary system of government, to a confederal system during the American Revolution, and ultimately to a federation. You can also remember the term confederal by thinking of the Confederacy, the group of states that seceded during the Civil War.
You can imagine if Paulette lived in a confederation and moved between states, that she might encounter more dramatic differences, such as an entirely different structure for developing laws without oversight at a federal level. Instead, the states may grant limited powers to a national government, such as going to war if needed, and making sure that trade operates smoothly.
In this lesson, we focused on three systems of government: unitary, federal, and confederal. In a unitary system of government, laws are typically determined at the national level and most power is held at the national level. Then regions may become responsible to enforce decisions made at a higher level of government. In a federal form of government, or federation, laws are determined at both the state and national level. In federal governments, power is held by states and by federal level government. In a confederal government, or confederation, laws are determined mainly at the state level, and power is held at the state level. The states may grant limited powers to a national government, but there is no strong central government as in unitary and federal systems.
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